Earlier this month, Cristal bling came to town with a tasting seminar of Louis Roederer ’s 2002 vintage champagnes, and a mini-vertical of their prestige cuvee Cristal, lead by Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, the company’s executive vice president and group winemaker.
The 2002 vintage
This is the current release of Cristal, which will go straight on to the 2004, as none was made in the hot 2003 vintage. It was a great vintage in Champagne: according to Lécaillon “god was champenoise in this year.” He said it wasn’t a classic year, when the average temperature would finish the growing season at 11.2 to 11.3°C. In 2002 it was sunny and dry, finishing at around 11.7°C.
Lécaillon explained that Champagne is always “a fight between the storms and water of an oceanic climate, and a continental climate that is dry and hot. In 2002, we got a push of continental weather. It got dry, with quite cold north-easterly winds which slightly concentrated and slowed down the ripening, giving more finesse.”
In terms of optimal harvest point Lécaillon said: “we taste the grapes, looking for flavour, aroma, balance. Sometimes we pick at 9% potential alcohol, slightly unripe. Tasting is the only way to decide which plots are ready. Sugar is a good measurement, but only as a rough figure, not a detailed figure.”
He said, simply, “we made exceptional wines in 2002.”
The technical components of philosophy
Throughout the seminar Lécaillon emphasised that there is no formula at Roederer, but there is a house style led by Roederer’s philosophy of production.
On grape ripeness: Ripeness in Champagne is likely to be considered unripe in most other wine-producing regions. Lécaillon explained full ripeness in Champagne “is a question of taste. When you get lot of aromas and flavours, and you still get a focus on acidity and freshness. A ripe grape for me is, when I taste it, I get a long length with fresh acidity and aromas. It comes back to what you aim for.”
On stainless steel and oak: A mix of stainless steel and oak is used for the first fermentation, depending on the cuvée. Lécaillon said “the idea of blending oak fermented wines and stainless steel wines is tradition and modernity: tension, subtlety, pure wines and flavours of the modern with the richness of tradition. We protect from oxidation as much as we can.” The oak used is large casks averaging about a quarter of a century in age.
He added: “Oak is not about taste. Oak is more to do with lees stirring, ageing on total lees, micro-oxidation, creamy, silky texture. We want champagne that is more sensuous and hedonistic when it’s young.”
On malolactic fermentation: There is no formula, Lécaillon repeated, it’s always a question of balance. Though malic acid does seem to be prized, as he said “we think malic acid provides life giving acidity, and vibrations to the blend. We look for malic acid, but not too strongly otherwise it’s too appley; just enough to give a crescendo on the palate, or energy as we call it at Louis Roederer. It gives one extra dimension.”
In 2002, none of the wines underwent malolactic fermentation.
And it’s never done on chardonnay. Lécaillon said: “we never do malo on chardonnay; when we do malo we do it on pinot noir or pinot meunier. It decreases the elegance of chardonnay. And in fact chardonnay is less acidic than pinot noir.”
On structure and texture: Lécaillon said “structure comes from the vineyards; texture is built in the winery. For that creamy, silky texture, the smooth feeling that wraps around the acidity, we work on total lees, keeping as much solids as we can. We age the [still] wines on total lees for 4-6 months. Sometimes we do lees stirring every week, or every few weeks. When you age wines on total lees you get a creamy texture, but you are on the reductive style, so you need to be careful not to go too far towards a reductive style.” Reductive aromas are not favoured.
On lees ageing in bottle: Lécaillon said “we never look for long ageing on lees at Louis Roederer. A long time on lees brings more oxidation and autolysis which gives a biscuity taste.” More fruitiness is retained when the time on lees is not so long. For Cristal, Lécaillon said: “four to six years on lees is more than enough. After that we keep it a minimum of eight months on cork before release.”
On dosage: The champagnes are in the 9-11g/l dosage range. Lécaillon said: “it’s a new thing for Louis Roederer. We have some reduction of dosage from 10-12g/l to 8-10 g/l. Any kind of sugar you add, it’s a kind of mask you put on top of the wine. We’ve removed a little bit of the mask.”
On his favourite Cristal: Lécaillon was not to be drawn on his favourite vintage of Cristal. Instead, in truly diplomatic style, he said: “Cristal is at its optimum at 20 to 25 years from the vintage. I love the ’82, the ’85, the ‘79, they all have their own identity, and like children you cannot prefer one. You try to understand why they’re different, and to observe with humility and learn. It’s a permanent learning process.”
The titbit of gossip: Roederer have been working for five years to produce a brut nature/zero dosage bubbly for the house and they hope to release it by the end of 2010.
Tasting notes – Dec 2009
2002 Louis Roederer Blanc de Blancs
Grapes come from four villages in the Côtes des Blancs.
Gentle lemon spice with apple blossom. Fine mousse opening on the mid palate, aromatic spice, fine, elegant core with mid palate perfume, and lemon toast. There’s a creamy feeling around the fresh acid core. A certain lightness of texture alongside the blossoming flavour.
2002 Brut Vintage
The aim for this wine is to be the classic wine of the Louis Roederer range. It’s pinot noir dominated with about 70%. The fruit comes from north-facing vineyards, which Lécaillon suggests gives more mineral, chalky, spicy flavour in the pinot noir rather than red fruits.
Spice and toasted almonds aromatise the nose and palate. The mousse has a soft, creamy persistence. Notes of steel magnolias, cream and citrus emerge on the fine, elegant palate profile. Pure and linear structure, with the richness of toasted yellow fruits and white blossom. It has a rounded, softer style, maybe helped by 11g/l dosage. It’s more than approachable now, not as tight as one might expect. Fleshy white fruits, still with proper deportment.
2002 Brut Rosé
Fruit comes from the Marne Valley, from south-aspect vineyards. The 70% pinot noir component is macerated fro 6 to 10 days at cool temperatures. The grapes are not crushed, thus the very light colour. The rest is from chardonnay.
It has the faintest salmon pink hue. Dry-baked strawberry fruits on the nose with wafts of cinnamon and fresh almonds. A sweet fruit attack, with hints of honeysuckle and pink grapefruit follow through. A richness of flavour blossoms in the palate alongside the soft, fine, creamy mousse. Fine integration of acidity with light, yet intensely-flavoured fruit.
The clear bottle with its flat base, and the golden label resulted from a direct request from the Russian tsar, Alexander II, for whom the original champagne was created. The story goes that the tsar didn’t want his wine waiter hiding poison in the punt…
In 1876 Cristal was noticeably and fashionably sweet, with more than 100g/l residual sugar. Now it is firmly ensconced in the brut camp. The idea for this bubbly was to blend the old vines, over 25 years, of the three estates, to use the most integrated, balanced, sophisticated grapes for Cristal. Lécaillon said “we still do it the same way; not from the same blocks because we have to replant, and we use the old vines.”
A blend of 55% pinot noir, 45% chardonnay. Cream, roasted almonds, and steely nose flow into full fruit on the palate, with a silky, creamy texture, a nutty core and passion fruit and honeysuckle nuances. It’s youthful and fresh, with warm white fruit of nectarine and peach. Very smooth, silky texture, with a soft and almost sensorially lush mousse; refined and long, sublimely balanced.
Lécaillon said “we put this in family of top vintages of Cristal. There is extra energy, length, finesse, and silkiness in this wine, but it was all there from day one from harvest.”
2002 Cristal Rosé
Made from 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay, this also has the faintest salmon pink hue (as does the Brut Rosé). Warm strawberry notes with a sprinkle of black pepper precede a spacedust-textured entry mellowing immediately to a soft mousse with a cranberry perkiness. It’s less in the roasted nut spectrum, and more in the attractively fruit-focused forum. A dosage of 10g/l helps make this soft and readily appreciable already.
A very warm vintage. The nose leads with dry honey and dried citrus fruit, followed by a rich, floral perfume, with warm roasted almonds. This has a complex and intriguing nose. The palate entry is of toasted nuts, with warm, savoury fruit, in a refined framework. Dried citrus comes through on the tight palate though the acidity is not raging, more in the warm and open spectrum. A warm nuttiness, with floral notes and candied fruits follows up behind with possibly a hint of cumin. This is rich and powerful, and long.
A very cool vintage. Hints of aromatic fire-smoke rise aloft the roasted mixed nuts and allspice. There’s even a silhouette of cherry blossom. The palate shows the full breadth of toasted notes, with the enlivening steely core running the length of the palate, creating frame and poise. It’s long, it’s fresh, it’s supremely well balanced and integrated. It’s sophisticated with a certain lushness of expression. The soft silky cream mousse persists throughout. Soft roasted nuts, white fruit, seamlessly integrated into an exceedingly good wine.
Not as robust as 1996 or 1999.
Hints of straw colour are emerging. Warm, toasted aromatic spices on the nose, roasted hazelnut with baked honey and sweet, truffle notes on the palate. Rich and powerful, with toasted nuts, figs and even a whiff of bitter chocolate. Still has an upright acid backbone, with mature notes coming to the fore including a hint of mocca; very long finish.
The last traditional year, before entering a hot/warm cycle in 1989.
Creamy flavour, with toasted and roasted fruit and nuts. Savoury, nutty, fire-smoke, truffle, and fresh mushroom. Citrus notes are beginning to fade behind the toasted notes, though it retains its fresh core, fleshed out with those savoury, developing notes. Soft and creamy, persistent mousse. Delicous, but not the standout vintage for me. It doesn’t have the persistence in the mouth of the 1996 (or the youth), though its finish is supremely long.
Deep straw colour. Aromatic tarry, toasty nose, which is both dense and intense. It has a dark and brooding intensity, with savoury, toasted, full-bodied complexity and richness. That trademark acid backbone continues to confer freshness and longevity. It hasn’t gone into a biscuity profile, just beautifully tarry and toasty, with an admirable length of finish.